Friday, October 22, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Focus's "Hocus Pocus"

You are reading this right now because the Danish progressive rock group Focus made you. Don't believe me? Well, listen to their monstrous 1971 hit "Hocus Pocus" again and you'll find yourself right back here, reading this.

Popular music has long been interested in supernatural forms of magic. Influential acts like Olivia Newton-John, The Cars, Pilot, and America all have songs devoted to the topic. Similarly, Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" (i.e. "hoodoo" you love) and The Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra" have, like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, tried to "Put a Spell on You" with some of their songs. But no group before or since has maximized the ratio of magic to kick-ass rock as much as Focus does on their epic cut "Hocus Pocus." And this doesn't even come close to qualifying the song's importance. It is also one of the few instrumental hits of the pop-rock era. Its existence unquestionably brought about the mainstream popularity of other instrumentals like Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F." and Perry Botkin, Jr.'s "Nadia's Theme (The Young and the Restless)." Of more importance, though, is the undisputed fact that Focus reclaimed the art of "yodeling" from the Americans. American acts, such as Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Sly and the Family Stone, had co-opted the yodel from Europe for their own financially self-serving purposes. Focus corrects this wrong by including yodeling on their incantatory hit*.

Focus's mesmerizing song begins with a seven-chord riff that will literally tear your pants right off your grandpappy's ass. Why he would be wearing your skinny jeans is an issue for you work to out with your therapist. The first two instrumental breaks--and several that follow--feature keyboardist Thijs van Leer's immortal yodeling, communicating a powerful spell that has led you to this very place. Making the song even more magical is that it attempts, within seven minutes, to incorporate as many aspects of traditional European-derived folk forms into its futuristic progressive rock frame as possible, including solos on accordion, mock pan flute, scat singing, whistling, and, of course, vicious guitar leads (by the song's writer, Jan Akkerman) and yodeling. Not only was this song a profoundly important hit that was internationally famous, it magically leads more people to read my writing!

*-Never mind the fact yodeling originated in the Swiss Alps, which are some more than half a day's drive from the Netherlands.

Below is an audio clip of the song. Keep reading ...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Van Halen's "Right Now"

In her 1986 treatise "The Greatest Love of All," philosopher Whitney Houston argues, "I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way." This child-first, future-centric ideology ruled our world for half a decade, and the results were disastrous, because otherwise intelligent people thought they heard her sing, "I believe the children are our present." As a result, every new day was a birthday for the children. National and personal debt soon ballooned. All of our streets were littered with discarded R.O.B.s, gilded rattles, and flattened Pogo Balls. Traffic was THE WORST because kids on their damned Big Wheels were clogging up all the freeways with their insufficiently slow (albeit environmentally friendly) form of transportation. Thankfully, the adults reclaimed their fault-proof logic (example: "Why can't I play with Timmy?" asks unnamed child. "Because I said so," replies fully-grown adult parent, expertly!). And the inspiration came from a most unlikely source: Van Halen's 1991 triumph "Right Now."

For a small sliver of the 1970s and all of the 1980s, no band's music was the soundtrack to every kegger you went to more than Van Halen's. They screamed PARTY. Anchored by the greatest single guitar player in the history of human beings playing guitar in Sir Eddie Van Halen, the group knocked out hit after hit, including "Running with the Devil," "Panama," "Jump," and "Poundcake." Lingering behind this facade of inartful debauchery, the casual spreading of sexually transmitted diseases, 50-yard marker-sized lines of cocaine, and warehouses of zebra-print clothing was our salvation from this Ritalin-happy generation of Whitney Houston future-kids. Apparently, Eddie Van Halen composed the music for his most important anthem during the David Lee Roth years. But it wasn't until deep into his tenure with the Cabo Wabo man himself, Sammy Hagar, that this gorgeous melody would be served by such insight into the human condition.

"Right Now" is great because it least represents Van Halen's usual musical strengths. The track is not frivolous: it is absolutely serious and heart-felt; Eddie Van Halen's tapping and whammy-bar drives are pushed far into the background, substituted by a Bruce Hornsby and the Range-style piano figure geared toward latte-drinking progressives; and Sammy Hagar isn't actually singing about his boner for a change. Instead, Hagar's lyric is a direct subversion of Whitney Houston's philosophy. "Right now is everything," he yelps, passionately, during the chorus, adding, "It's your tomorrow." By actually paying attention to the present, Hagar tells us, we can "catch that magic moment and do it right." Translation: We don't need to wait for no stinking kids to do it for us when we are old, covered with uncomfortable bed-sores, and being totally ignored by them in our smelly and understaffed retirement homes. No truer words have ever been spoken. We were so brainwashed during the reign of the Whitney Houston's enlightenment that we couldn't see the signs in front of us. For example, in the 1989 Peter Weir film Dead Poet's Society, the "children are our future" mindset was subtly subverted when John Keating, played by the venerable Robin Williams, pleads, "CARPE DIEM." But we were too busy tearing up our books to notice. Sammy Hagar's lyric is empowering and immediate, emphasizing that we "turn this thing around" and "do it right." "Why wait another day?" he asks us. Exactly. Thanks to Sammy Hagar and the rest of Van Halen, children no longer ruled, and we were able to become self-centered again, leaving our destructive and extremely expensive legacy to them to repair. Neenerneenerneener.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Site Update and Coming Soon -- The Fiddleback.

We've slowed down around here, lately. Part of that is due to the reality of school starting back up in the fall. The other, cooler part has to do with a couple of us--Joshua Cross, and I--taking a gig as co-music editors of brand new online arts journal The Fiddleback.

The first issue isn't quite up and running, yet, but it will be soon. In the mean time, We'll keep posting fun stuff here, but some of our reviews will be shifted over to The Fiddleback.

Also--The Fiddleback is shaping up to be pretty great. The journal's founder, Jeff Simpson, has assembled a crack team of fiction, poetry, art, non-fiction, and music editors to bring together exceptional content. Once the first issue goes live, come enjoy our take on the arts and maybe even submit your own work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #72 Pavement - Wowee Zowee

Bryan Charles' author blurb on the back of his book about Pavement's Wowee Zowee is short and direct: "Bryan Charles is the author of the novel Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way." That's all the ethos we get going into this book. We don't see any affiliation with Pitchfork, or The Village Voice, no ties to the actual music business. All that the blurb tells us is that Bryan Charles is a novelist, a writer. As such, fans of hardcore music journalism might be a bit hesitant in approaching Charles' take on Wowee Zowee. Let's hope they aren't, though, because Wowee Zowee is a fun, compelling read, and is easily one of the best books in Continuum's 33 1/3 series. This is a bold claim to make, I know. What, with a writer penning the book instead of a rock critic, not to mention the fact that this is the seventy-second entry in the series, usually a sign that the good albums and ideas are all-dried up. Rather, Bryan Charles' Wowee Zowee is a perfect example of why the 33 1/3 series is so successful and has had such long legs--with every volume there is the chance at greatness. Not every volume is great, and a few are downright boring, but Charles' sharp writing, self-referential framework, and measured earnestness make his book one of the series' biggest successes, and a great piece of rock journalism.

On the surface, Charles' Wowee Zowee might sound like any other 33 1/3 book; the volume combines personal fandom, band interviews, analysis, and a brief track-by-track walk-through in its attempt to get at some sense of truth or understanding about the album. What sets the volume apart from its peers, though, is Charles' engaging prose, and his ability to wind the book's disparate parts into compelling narrative threads. What are these narrative threads? First, we get the author's story, how he came to Pavement, how he, more reluctantly, came to Wowee Zowee, and then how the album unfolded throughout his life. Not always gripping subject matter, but in the hands of a sharp writer with an unique eye for detail and a fiction writer's narrative chops, the memoir elements of the book pop. Second, we get a research narrative, of sorts, complete with a thesis that Charles sets out to either prove or disprove: "Underdog rock record greeted with head-wags and confusion stands the test of time to become fan favorite and indie rock classic" (22). With this thesis in mind, the author digs up old reviews and articles, then sets out to interview band members, label heads, and studio technicians. Rather than delving into straight rock journalism, however, a funny thing starts to happen--Charles' Pavement fandom, the importance of the record to the man, begins to bleed into the research narrative. We read as he stalls on his project due to nerves, chuckle at his frustrations dealing with Matador Records' curmudgeonly Gerard Cosloy, and feel awkward for him when he trips up Stephen Malkmus with a question about lyrics.

Charles' volume on Wowee Zowee is so successful because he strikes the perfect balance between fan enthusiasm and rock journalist curiosity. Nothing is too giddy, or too factual--both of these narrative threads bleed together as one man's attempt to get at the heart of an album he loves. Even the song-by-song, a pet peeve of mine in many 33 1/3 volumes, is handled admirably. The section closes the book, not with section headings and dry explication, but with a stream of conscious rant that ties each song to moments and ideas from the author's life--moments and ideas that tie back to early moments from the book, heightening the ethos that the jacket blurb only hints at. The book is at turns touching and funny (try to read the side-by-side comparison of Billy Corgan and Stephen Malkmus without losing it), and encompasses the best qualities of 33 1/3's finest moments.